Baseball and the Supreme Court

✩ 1972 ✩

Flood v. Kuhn


By designating Organized Baseball as an intrastate, rather than interstate, activity, the 1922 Supreme Court decision in Federal Baseball granted the major leagues an exemption from federal antitrust laws. Since 1895, state and federal courts had been protecting the nation’s monopolies in most other industries (sugar, railroads, etc.) In 1937, however, when the Supreme Court signaled it would no longer undermine Congressional legislation, baseball’s antitrust exemption was thrown into question.

From the ballplayers’ perspective, the exemption’s most serious injustice was the reserve clause. Just as ballplayers in the National and American Leagues jumped to the Federal League in 1914-1915 to escape that clause — which bound them to their teams and suppressed their wages — others jumped in 1946 to the Mexican League. To deter or punish jumpers, Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler imposed a blacklist, banning them from rejoining Major League Baseball (MLB) for five years.

The first to jump was Giants outfielder Danny Gardella. After playing the 1946 season for the Veracruz Blues, Gardella was blocked from returning to play in MLB. He sued, claiming in Gardella v. Chandler that club owners were operating in interstate commerce, and were colluding and restraining trade in violation of the antitrust laws. In a federal Court of Appeals in 1949, two of America’s most eminent judges, Jerome Frank and Learned Hand, condemned MLB labor practices. Sensing its vulnerability if the case reached the Supreme Court, MLB settled with Gardella, thus ending the threat.

Besides the Supreme Court, MLB’s antitrust exemption could also be jeopardized by Congressional legislation. Despite MLB lobbying against such investigations, New York Rep. Emanuel Celler launched a Congressional inquiry in 1951. Rather than a threat, however, it allowed repeated testimony — even from some ill-informed players — attesting to the necessity of the reserve clause. MLB’s failure to expand to more US cities received greater scrutiny, but ultimately the Committee refused to revoke baseball’s antitrust exemption.

In 1953, MLB’s reserve clause and antitrust exemption were threatened again in Toolson v. New York Yankees. In 1949, George Earl Toolson was pitching for Triple-A Newark. When the Yankees dropped their affiliation with the team, he was reassigned to Single-A Binghamton, well below his talents. When Toolson refused to report and instead sought a position with a Triple-A Pacific Coast League team, he was blocked, blacklisted, and made ineligible. Toolson sued MLB, claiming it restrained trade in violation of antitrust laws by limiting player movement to other teams. In Federal Baseball the Supreme Court shielded MLB by its narrow definition of interstate commerce, and in Toolson it refused to overrule precedent, claiming Congress had never intended antitrust to cover baseball.

In 1957, Toolson was reaffirmed in Radovich v. National Football League. While the Supreme Court refused to extend an antitrust exemption to professional football, it reasserted baseball’s special status. The Court claimed that overruling Federal Baseball would do more harm than good — siding with the owners rather than the ballplayers.

Other challenges to the MLB exemption emerged in the late 1950s, but they focused on business rather than labor. They were derailed when MLB added four more cities and teams in 1961 and 1962. No further Congressional challenge to baseball’s exemption emerged through the late 1960s.

In 1969, however, when Curt Flood was traded without his permission from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, he refused to report. Playing a dozen years for the Cardinals, Flood had been a three-time All Star, seven-time Gold Glove winner, and perennial .300 hitter, for which he earned an impressive salary. But under the reserve clause, he could be bought and sold. While he might have been (in Flood’s own words) a “well-paid slave,” he was still a slave. He sued MLB, but in Flood v. Kuhn in 1972, the Supreme Court again reaffirmed both Federal Baseball and Toolson. The Court acknowledged the ways baseball operated in interstate commerce, but claimed only Congress could rescind MLB’s antitrust exemption.

While Flood lost, his self-sacrificing initiative inspired other ballplayers, and led by player’s union president Marvin Miller, the reserve clause — which Flood sacrificed his career to challenge — was finally broken via contract law by the Seitz arbitration decision in 1975, and free agency finally emerged in baseball and then all other professional sports.

— Robert Elias

Listen: Curt Flood’s full SABR Oral History Collection interview from August 9, 1992

Curt Flood with a backdrop of Busch Stadium in St. Louis (Photos: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Curt Flood’s career statistics

1956 18 CIN 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000
1957 19 CIN 3 2 0 0 1 1 0 .333 .333 1.333
1958 20 STL 121 50 17 2 10 41 2 .261 .317 .382
1959 21 STL 121 24 7 3 7 26 2 .255 .305 .418
1960 22 STL 140 37 20 1 8 38 0 .237 .303 .354
1961 23 STL 132 53 15 5 2 21 6 .322 .391 .415
1962 24 STL 151 99 30 5 12 70 8 .296 .346 .416
1963 25 STL 158 112 34 9 5 63 17 .302 .345 .403
1964 26 STL 162 97 25 3 5 46 8 .311 .356 .378
1965 27 STL 156 90 30 3 11 83 9 .310 .366 .421
1966 28 STL 160 64 21 5 10 78 14 .267 .298 .364
1967 29 STL 134 68 24 1 5 50 2 .335 .378 .414
1968 30 STL 150 71 17 4 5 60 11 .301 .339 .366
1969 31 STL 153 80 31 3 4 57 9 .285 .344 .366
1971 33 WSA 13 4 0 0 0 2 0 .200 .300 .200
CAREER 1759 851 271 44 85 636 88 .293 .342 .389
Source: Photos: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

A Life in Baseball

Born in 1938, Curt Flood grew up primarily in Oakland, California, where he was a pupil under the tutelage of legendary coach George Powles, who also helped train future big-leaguers Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Joe Morgan. After Flood graduated from high school in 1956, he signed a contract with the Cincinnati Redlegs for $4,000.

Flood endured segregated living quarters, hostile fans, and discrimination during his first spring training and in his first minor-league stop in the Deep South, but the 18-year-old phenom led the Class B Carolina League with a .340 average and 133 RBIs, and he was called up to make his major-league debut as a pinch-runner on September 9, 1956.

Traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958, Flood blossomed into a star center fielder, winning the first of seven Gold Glove Awards in 1963 and helping the Redbirds win a World Series championship one year later. He and the Cardinals won another World Series title in 1967 and a National League pennant in ’68 — when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption, “Baseball’s Best Center Fielder.”


Curt Flood became a star after he was traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the St. Louis Cardinals following the 1957 season. (SABR-Rucker Archive)

Curt Flood's 1970 Topps card (TRADING CARD DB)

Curt Flood’s 1970 Topps card after his trade to the Philadelphia Phillies — a team for which he never played a game. (Photo: Trading Card Database)

The Trade

On October 8, 1969, a sportswriter phoned Curt Flood to break the news that his employer for twelve seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals, had assigned his contract to the Philadelphia Phillies as part of a seven-player trade. He had no notice that the Cardinals planned a trade and no desire to go to Philadelphia.

Like every major league contract for more than 80 years, Flood’s contract contained provisions that he, like the other players, believed bound him to his team for the rest of his playing days. He could not escape the contract except by retiring, nor could he prevent his team from selling or trading him. This was known as the reserve system.

Rather than retire, Flood decided to challenge this system. On December 13, 1969, Flood went to the MLB Players Association’s executive committee meeting in Puerto Rico to discuss suing major league baseball in a challenge to the reserve clause. Afterward, the MLBPA executive committee voted unanimously to back Flood — including paying his legal expenses — and Flood filed his lawsuit against major league baseball, seeking to be declared a free agent.

“Philadelphia. The nation’s northernmost southern city. Scene of Richie Allen’s ordeals. Home of a ballclub rivaled only by the Pirates as the least cheerful organization in the league. When the proud Cardinals were riding a chartered jet, the Phils were still lumbering through the air in propeller jobs, arriving on the Coast too late to get proper rest before submitting to murder by the Giants and Dodgers. I did not want to succeed Richie Allen in the affections of that organization, its press and its catcalling, missile-hurling audience.”

— Curt Flood in his 1971 autobiography The Way It Is,
co-authored with Richard Carter

A Brief History of the Reserve Clause

The reserve clause had its origin at the end of the 1879 National League season and soon evolved into the form it would keep well into the second half of the 20th century. The reserve clause bound a player to his team for as long as the team, not the player, desired. Even after the contract itself expired, a player remained tied to the team. He could be traded, sold, or released, but the player himself could not initiate any moves on his own.

For many years, players at least had the right to make an initial decision about which team to sign with. That disappeared for American players in 1965, with the advent of the amateur draft.

The owners refused to give any ground to players in their efforts to loosen the bonds of the reserve clause. In 1969, Lou Carroll, legal counsel for the National League, even rejected a proposal that at age 65 a player would no longer be bound by the reserve clause. His reason was that to allow this would “open the door to relaxation of complete player control,” a position that demonstrates how unwilling the owners were to compromise on the reserve clause through the collective-bargaining process.

John Montgomery Ward

John Montgomery Ward, a star pitcher and shortstop, led the earliest challenges to baseball’s reserve clause system. He organized the first major-league players union in 1885 and was the driving force behind the employee-controlled Players’ League in 1890. (TRADING CARD DB)

Earl Toolson (TRADING CARD DB)

Earl Toolson signed with the Boston Red Sox in 1942 and helped the Louisville Colonels win the American Association championship in 1946. He was traded to the Kansas City Blues, a New York Yankees farm team, following the 1948 season. (Trading Card Database)

1953: Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc.

After pitching in the minor leagues for seven years (with a two-year hiatus for military service during World War II), 28-year-old Earl Toolson filed a lawsuit in 1951 against the New York Yankees challenging the reserve clause system.

“I had suffered a spinal injury, a ruptured disc, much like (former Yankee outfielder) Charlie Keller’s. It was a baseball injury, no question of that,” Toolson later told a reporter. “The Yankees refused to assume any responsibility for my injury. They wanted me to go to Binghamton, a minor league affiliate, and work my way back to the big club. I refused.”

That same year, New York Congressman Emanuel Celler opened hearings in the US House of Representatives that focused on baseball’s monopoly status. Yankees Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel and Mickey Mantle were among the baseball figures who later testified before Congress.

On November 9, 1953, the US Supreme Court issued a one-paragraph opinion in Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc. The decision affirmed three lower federal court decisions regarding the application of antitrust laws to Organized Baseball.

The concluding sentence declared: “Without re-examination of the underlying issues, the judgments below are affirmed on the authority of Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs … so far as that decision determines that Congress had no intention of including the business of baseball within the scope of the federal antitrust laws.”

Marvin Miller and the Birth of the MLBPA

In 1966, Marvin Miller took over as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. He led a moribund group of what he considered among the most exploited workers in the country while at the same time being irreplaceable in their work, and turned them into arguably the most powerful labor union in American history, in historian Michael Haupert’s estimation.

When Miller was hired, the association’s assets totaled $5,700 and some used furniture in a rented New York office. The primary source of association income came from the owners. Players paid $50 in annual dues, which was not nearly enough to cover the costs of running the association.

In his first six months on the job Miller delivered a new pension plan for the players. In his second year he went one better, negotiating the first basic agreement in professional sports, signed in February 1968. But the best was yet to come. Before he retired in 1982, the players had gained the right to arbitration for disciplinary issues and salaries, overturned the reserve rule, increased the size of their pensions, and saw salaries rise by nearly 2,000 percent — all without the Armageddon predicted by the owners.

MLB Players Association leader Marvin Miller (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

MLB Players Association executive director Marvin Miller helped guide Curt Flood’s case all the way to the US Supreme Court. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

Timeline compiled by Tim Odzer.

US Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackmun (Library of Congress)

Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in the Flood v. Kuhn case in 1972, served on the US Supreme Court from 1970 until 1994. (Library of Congress)

The Supreme Court’s Decision

After two lower courts had already ruled against Curt Flood, the US Supreme Court surprised most observers by agreeing to hear Flood’s appeal. On June 19, 1972, by a vote of five to three (with one abstention), the Court upheld its precedents and ruled in Major League Baseball’s favor.

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote a five-part opinion for the majority. Part I, titled “The Game,” recounted baseball’s origins, listed no fewer than 88 names from its history, included all of Franklin Pierce Adams’s “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” in a footnote, and essentially framed the Court as a group of sycophantic fans.

Ultimately, Blackmun and the Court conceded baseball is a business engaged in interstate commerce, denoting the exemption as “an aberration that has been with us now for over half a century.” Deeming the lack of Congressional action as “positive inaction,” Blackmun concluded: “If there is any inconsistency or illogic in all this, it is an inconsistency and illogic of long standing that is to be remedied by the Congress and not by this Court.”

He then ruled that federal law preempted Flood’s state antitrust claims and found it unnecessary to consider MLB’s labor law argument. Justices Potter Stewart and William Rehnquist joined Blackmun’s opinion, while Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Byron White joined all but the romanticism of Part I.

Justices William Douglas and Thurgood Marshall each wrote dissenting opinions to which Justice William Brennan joined. Both opinions took issue with Blackmun’s interpretation of Congressional inaction: “The unbroken silence of Congress should not prevent us from correcting our own mistakes,” Brennan wrote. Marshall further observed that even if the Court overturned baseball’s exemption, Flood would not necessarily prevail; the trial court would still have to decide if the case fell under labor or antitrust law.

Arbitrator Seitz Sets the Players Free

The most important labor arbitration decision of all time, according to historian Roger Abrams, involved baseball, two pitchers and one of the finest labor arbitrators of all time, a true arbitration “superstar.” Peter Seitz’s decision on December 23, 1975, in baseball’s case involving Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally still reverberates throughout the multibillion-dollar sports industry.

Unable to reach a new contract with its player before the 1975 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers exercised their power to renew Messersmith’s contract. The Players Association filed a grievance on his behalf, contending that the Dodgers no longer retained the exclusive right to employ Messersmith. The Players Association soon added a second grievant to its case, Dave McNally, who had retired during the 1975 season after a stellar 14-year major-league career, mostly with the Baltimore Orioles.

Following Seitz’s decision, the owners locked the players out of the 1976 spring training. The club owners could not countenance a system where its employees could select their employers without restriction. At the bargaining table they demanded restrictions on free agency, and the Players Association agreed to limit their new-found freedom. The deal the parties reached required a player to accumulate six years of major-league service before becoming eligible for free agency.


Pitchers Andy Messersmith, left, and Dave McNally challenged baseball’s reserve clause after the 1975 season and ultimately won the right to free agency. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood: Race, Labor, and the National Pastime

Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente became the trailblazer for Latin American players in major-league baseball during the same era that Curt Flood emerged as the icon of and greatest champion for player labor rights. Just six months after the Flood v. Kuhn decision, Clemente was killed in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, a tragic ending to a life dedicated to humanitarianism, baseball, and social justice.

Back in 1969, Flood and Clemente shared a meeting room at a gathering of the executive board of the Major League Baseball Players Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Flood received the invitation specifically as an opportunity to convince the board that supporting his reserve-clause lawsuit would be worthwhile.

Flood biographer Brad Snyder claims Clemente intervened by placing himself firmly behind Flood’s cause at the meeting and that this support proved pivotal in convincing the union to pursue Flood’s case. In Flood’s own memoir and several other accounts, any contributions made by Clemente are unmentioned. However, the uneven impacts of economic inequalities upon historically marginalized groups likely connected their agendas at the meeting.


Roberto Clemente and other Latin American players worked to fight the multifaceted “racial glass ceiling in baseball created by the slow pace of integration,” historian Adrian Burgos Jr. wrote. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

Further Reading

Check out more books from SABR authors related to the 1972 Flood v. Kuhn decision:

A Well-Paid Slave: Curt Flood's Fight for Free Agency in Professional Sports, by Brad Snyder
The End of Baseball As we Knew It: The Players Union, 1960-1981, by Charles P. Korr